The French socialist saga makes awkward reading for left-wingers. It has a wistful air of déjà vu. The progressive hero starts out filled with good intentions and plans for social justice, but then, näively playing by the twisted rules of the game, he falls easy prey to the gnomes of Zurich and the masters of the multinationals. There is no happy ending. France, the once-proud odd man out, is brought down. Yet the old story is never quite the same, and it is instructive each time to see how the hero is first bewitched before being bullied into line. Besides, hope springs eternal, and the French story is still unfinished…
Let me pick up the narrative where I left off in a previous letter. The euphoria-the so-called “state of grace”–of the Socialist victory–had been dissipated; and the government had discarded the tools of Keynesianism and was groping uneasily on the road to deflation [see Singer, “Imagination Has Not Yet Taken Power,” The Nation, January 29].
Disenchantment with the state of the economy was bound to affect the voters. In the elections this March, the French chose their municipal councils. In the first-round balloting, some middle-class voters swung to the right, and many supporters of the left expressed their discontent by staying at home. They could afford to do that because the fate of the government was not at stake (the terms of National Assembly members still have three years to run, and the President’s term has five). The heavy defeat the Socialists suffered was inevitably magnified by comparison with the results of the municipal elections in 1977. Then the left was at the height of its power (the split between the Communists and the Socialists had not yet occurred), and it swept the country, winning control of an additional sixty-one cities of more than 30,000 inhabitants.
The spectacular setback of the left in the first-round voting came as no surprise. The unexpected was the line the opposition took. The right waged a Spiro Agnew-style law-and-order campaign mixed with a good dose of xenophobia. British Tories once fought a notorious by-election on the slogan “If you want a nigger as neighbor, vote Labor. ” The French right engaged in a similar whispering campaign. Only the “niggers” here are foreign workers, and racism is concentrated on Arabs from North Africa. All the familiar dirty tricks were employed. As it happens, the number of French citizens now on the dole (1.7 million) is about the same as the number of immigrant workers in the country, making the latter ideal scapegoats for rising welfare expenditures, overcrowding and, above all, crime in the big cities.
On paper, at least, it can be argued that adult immigrants are an economic boon rather than a burden, because they perform the tough, dirty, monotonous jobs French workers are not keen to take. But in the cities, where the social fabric has been rent by high unemployment, the rational argument does not have an immediate effect. The Socialists and Communists were not blameless in all this. In the past, they had taken an ostrich-like attitude toward racism, which is too serious a disease to be cured by counterpropaganda just at election time.
Still, in the week between the first- and second-round balloting, the left hit back. To wake up its followers, its leaders reminded them of the policies the right stood for. They said racism was racism and it stunk. One Socialist minister went so far as to refer (metaphorically) to the “fetid breath” of Jacques Chirac, Mayor of Paris and the opposition leader. The press, which hitherto had not been shocked by the right’s language, pounced on those words and began-pontificating about the left’s intolerance and the low level of political discourse. Presumably, the right’s jingoistic campaign, Which blamed everything on the wogs, and called for shipping them back across the Mediterranean, smelled like Chanel No. 5 .
There was nothing particularly French about the media’s double standard. In most Western nations the press thinks that its role is to preach moderation. If former French Prime Minister Raymond Barre, Thatcher or Reagan departs from the golden mean, the press will be understanding, explaining that special circumstances justify the behavior. But when the left is driven to radicalize its rhetoric and policies in retaliation, the editorialists warn and plead that it is in the left’s own interest, politically and otherwise, to stick to the middle of the road. But this time the left didn’t listen, and thanks to the tough stand it took, Socialist candidates staged a comeback in the second-round voting, salvaging wins in Marseilles, Belfort and Rennes, and losing only half of the sixty-one cities they had taken in 1977. Earlier predictions had it that they would lose them all. But as the champions of “moderation” were thus thwarted on the home front, foreign speculation came to their rescue.
While French politicians were electioneering, the West Germans voted in the Christian Democrats. Anticipating that the rightward trend would push up the value of the mark, the smart money in France moved massively out of francs. (That much of the movement was pure speculation was shown by the fact that $6 billion subsequently returned to the franc.) Faced with the falling franc, Mitterrand toyed with the idea of taking France out of the European Monetary System and sheltering his socialist experiment provisionally behind protective walls. Then he opted for the orthodox solution–devaluation of the franc in accordance with a realignment of European currencies. Minister of Finance Jacques Delors thereupon imposed tough austerity measures–budget cuts, higher taxes and increased social security contributions by workers. Delors’s aim was in accord with classical capitalist economic theory: to spur exports by reducing domestic consumption. True, there was less unfairness in his methods than in those of his conservative predecessor, but he was following the same free-market logic.
In this gloomy period, the fuss caused by the restrictions on foreign travel in Delors’s deflationary package provided some comic relief. I am a born internationalist who abhors frontiers, but the hell raised by the right over the limit on the amount of currency French travelers may take out of the country was truly farcical. The fact that M. Dassault, the aircraft tycoon, earns more than a thousand times the minimum French wage is proof, as everybody knows, that France is a free country. The 1983 travel allowance of $275 per person apparently threatens that freedom. It is the thin edge of the wedge. Gulag is around the corner, though Frenchmen, mon cher Monsieur, will never be slaves. Even the propagandists must have had doubts about the popularity of such rhetoric. After all, only fifty-seven of every one hundred French people take any holiday at all, and only sixteen of these go abroad.
Then the preachers of the right revealed their sense of humor. A New York Times correspondent, attributing the statement to some unnamed “sociologists, ” wrote, “The working class, if such a thing still exists, often identifies less with its real conditions than with its aspirations. So when a trip to the United States or Katmandu becomes next to impossible, the government is seen as padlocking the dream factory.” Apparently, only left-wing intellectuals missed that important distinction. I must confess I did. I already knew that whenever there is talk of nationalization, big investors vanish and bur hearts are made to bleed for poor widows and orphans owning a few shares. “Let my people dream” opens up incomparably wider horizons for rightist propagandists. They can now say that the jet set is performing its duty to the working class. The slave drivers, the worst exploiters, are merely getting rich so they can live out popular fantasies.
But let us return to the more serious matter of the government’s austerity measures. No doubt you are thinking that, given France’s integration into the international economy and its need to balance its foreign trade accounts, Mitterrand had no choice but to impose them. The point is partly taken. If it was impossible “to build socialism in a single country” the size of the Soviet Union, in France, a smaller and internationally interdependent country, the very idea is absurd. A genuine socialist experiment must start within national boundaries, even if it cannot be insulated for long. Yet that situation does not apply to France, for Mitterrand never said he would start building socialism immediately.
Any left-wing country that tries to alter the pattern of production and to reduce inequalities in income and wealth will have to cope with hostile neighbors. The Socialist government in France should have calculated what sort of bargains it could make with its European partners, how quickly it could gain ground by contagious example, how long it was willing to forgo the advantages of the international division of labor. Above all, it should have discussed those issues openly, since its only chance of standing up to pressure, domestic or foreign, is to acquire massive popular support. As it turned out, if there was any debate in Paris, it took place behind closed doors. The decision to impose austerity measures was made by “Tonton””Oncle François in the Château, the Elysée Palace (to use the nicknames coined by the satirical weekly Canard Enchaîné). Nor were the consequences of that decision explained, or perhaps even understood, by those who made it. The retreat was presented as temporary: a more “socialist” policy would be resumed as soon as the books were balanced, the government said. But that argument ignores both the nature of the international economy and its crisis, which has drastically reduced the French government’s room to maneuver. The Socialists talk as if it were possible to pursue an egalitarian social policy within a system that follows the biblical dictum “Unto everyone that hath shall be given.”
Perhaps you are wondering how a government with four Communist ministers can devote itself to the management of the capitalist crisis. To cut a long answer short: it can, and the Communist Party now carries little weight in the government. After violently attacking the Socialists, the party then climbed on Mitterrand’s bandwagon. Also, the Soviet economic model has been shattered, but the Communists have yet to elaborate credible ideas of their own. (They once argued that the economic crisis was “national” and a Japanese rate of growth possible.) Nonetheless, should popular discontent grow, one cannot rule out a Communist exit from the government for reasons of domestic rather than foreign policy.
American pundits who had stressed the party’s subservience to Moscow and forecast that the Socialist dog would be wagged by its Communist tail now look pretty silly. Their silliness was not revealed for the first time by the expulsion of forty-seven Soviet officials last month; spy stories are always but a symptom. It was shown dramatically in January when, just before the German campaign, Mitterrand 41 strongly implied in Bonn that he backed the installation of the American Euromissiles, and the Communists stayed in his government without a word of protest. A critical analysis of Mitterrand’s foreign policy would require a whole letter. Here let me stress just one point. According to Mitterrand’s apologists, his foreign policy is based on the assumption that the balance of power, particularly in Europe, is tilted in Russia’s favor. I would venture that his support for Reagan’s anti-Soviet line and his failure to seek a third way reflect something deeper: his inability, despite his socialist vocabulary, to conceive of a future beyond the confines of capitalism. The curse of the left today is the lack of a radical alternative.
The anniversaries of the death of Marx and Stalin and the birth of Stendhal having been celebrated recently, I shall add a small one of my own. Fifteen years ago, 50,000 people stood in front of what was once the Bastille chanting “We are all German Jews.” That was one highlight of an uprising in which students, followed by workers, revealed the depths of discontent that lie beneath the glittering surface of Western society. The uprising was also the first leftist mass movement that cursed capitalism and American imperialism while rejecting the Soviet model.
But we lacked imagination at the time. Had we suggested that in fifteen years France would have 2.1 million unemployed, West Germany 2.5 million, Britain more than 3 million and the United States about 12 million, we would have been dismissed not only as crypto-pinkos but as plain crazy. Capitalism has now been deprived of its triumphant gospel of growth, but it stands apparently unshaken. Its capacity #, for absorbing shocks and its staying power are greater than we imagined. The major capitalist -regimes have also been helped by the destruction of the alternative model. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Solzhenitsyn’s revelations about the Gulag, events in Poland–all helped shatter the model. That encouraged all the establishments to tell the protesters that if they didn’t like it, they could lump it. It allowed them to revive the notion that the free marketplace is the only guarantee of political freedom, to reassert that history either culminates in capitalism or turns into tragedy.
This is not to suggest that we should have preserved the illusion of an alternative. If socialism is to be the victory of a politically conscious people, then it cannot be built on lies. When the Soviet Union was the “motherland” of socialism, it served as an inspiration for some people, but it repelled many more, particularly in the West. Even today efforts are being made, often successfully, to equate socialism with Soviet repression in Poland-as if Rosa Luxemburg rode in one of Jaruzelski’s tanks. Moreover, a movement that springs from the people and grows in its native soil cannot copy a foreign model, even an attractive one. What the Western left needs now is not a blueprint but a vision, showing that the answers to all our questions lead inexorably beyond the limits of capitalist society. And the ugly face of the right in the hour of crisis suggests we need it badly and quickly.
Two years ago, after Mitterrand’s victory, buoyed by the rage of the mighty, the fears of the exploiters, the panic of their servants, even my skeptical French friends were carried away. The victory may not be ours, they said, but the defeat is theirs. Now that paradox must be amended: the victory may not have been ours, but the defeat would be; The failure of the French experiment would have consequences for the left in other countries. That is why one must carefully watch the parties, the labor unions, the rank-and-file workers for any signs that the downward trend of support for socialism can be reversed. But time is running out. The left can only recover through a movement from below.-It will not win friends by donning the clothes of its opponents.
P.S. In the jolly month of May, the student riots in Paris revived ghosts of fifteen years ago. It was amusing to see conservative papers like Le Figaro suddenly discovering fie virtues of rebellion. Yet the hopes of the right for a “May 1968 in reverse” were never serious. Right-wingers are clearly a minority within the student. community. Employment prospects may be bad and discontent among students high, but the protest movement failed to grow or spread beyond the conservative departments of law and medicine. And today’s student rebels are defending narrow corporate interests. Fifteen years ago, students were the first to express popular discontent with the general shape of society. What turned the French events of 1968 into a historical occasion was that the students found an echo among the workers, who then brought the economy to a standstill through a massive general strike. The potential allies of the right-wing students–the angry shopkeepers and farmers–may well riot, but they cannot paralyze the country in a similar fashion. As long as it retains the sympathy of industrial workers, the Socialist government is not threatened in any fundamental way by demonstrations in the street.